|Wednesday, February 12
Updated: March 14, 4:57 PM ET
Nothing worse than the 1899 Cleveland Spiders
By Rob Neyer
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are bad. Really bad.
Yeah, we know. Stop the presses. Ho ho.
Everybody knows the D-Rays are bad. But how bad? Historically bad?
Hardly. It's true that in their five seasons, the Rays have finished last five times, but on the other hand they've lost 100 games only twice. Granted, they seem to be getting worse; both of their 100-loss seasons came in the last two years (100 in 2001, 106 in 2002). But the D-Rays still have a ways to go if they really want to be considered among the worst teams ever.
A few years ago, Eddie Epstein and I co-wrote a book called Baseball Dynasties, which was mostly about great teams but did include a chapter on terrible teams. I wish I could take credit for that chapter, but Eddie wrote it (though we forgot to mention that in the book). And in drawing up my own list of the worst teams of all time, I'm relying to a large degree on the work that Eddie's already done.
So if you've got a beef with my "top" worst major-league teams of the last century (plus a few years), take it up with Eddie.
Detroit Tigers, 1996
Record: 53-109 (.327)
The fate of the '96 Tigers should give hope to wretched teams everywhere. After playing poorly in 1995 (60-84, 26 games out of first place), the Tigers drove off a cliff in '96, going 53-109 to post the worst winning percentage in the majors since the Blue Jays posted an identical record in 1979. But in 1997, the Tigers jumped to third place while improving by 26 wins, to 79-83 (though it should probably be noted that in '98 they dropped back to last place with a 65-97 mark).
Philadelphia Phillies, 1961
Record: 47-107 (.305)
Thanks in part to the entry into the National League of the Houston Colt .45s and (especially) the New York Mets, in 1962 the Phillies cracked the .500 mark with an 81-80 record. In 1963 they improved to 87-75, and in 1964 they very nearly went to the World Series (but that's a story for another day).
Pittsburgh Pirates, 1952
Record: 42-112 (.273)
Joe Garagiola has been talking about the '52 Pirates for so long that you'd almost think they were just some sort of crazy legend that he made up, so he'd have plenty of material for his routine on the rubber-chicken circuit. But the truth is that the '52 Pirates really were that bad, despite the presence of Garagiola (who actually had a good year) and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner (who tied for the league lead with 37 homers). Under the watchful eyes of general manager Branch Rickey -- who'd built dynasties in St. Louis and Brooklyn -- the Pirates again finished last in 1953, '54, and '55, and didn't reach achieve respectability until 1958 (by which point Rickey had been gone for a few years).
Philadelphia Athletics, 1943
Record: 49-105 (.318)
So the Phillies finally escape the basement (see below), but not the Athletics, who in 1943 finished last for the fourth straight season. Here's a question ... How bad do you have to be, to lose 105 games when most of the best players in the league have been called off to war? Let's put it this way: the 1943 Athletics just might have been the least-talented collection of ballplayers to grace the major leagues in the 20th century (on the other hand, they improved by 23 games in 1944).
Boston Braves, 1935
Record: 38-115 (.248)
Without a doubt, one of the all-time weirdest teams, if not the worst. In 1934, the Braves won 78 games and finished fourth. In 1936, the Braves won 71 games and finished sixth. But in 1935, the Braves won 38 games and finished last by quite a comfortable margin. And they did this even though center fielder Wally Berger led the National League with 38 home runs and 130 RBI.
Washington Senators, 1903-1904
Record: 81-207 (.281)
The Senators were terrible in their beginning (1901-1911) and they were terrible at their end (1946-1960), but what a lot of people forget is that they were pretty darn good in the middle, reaching the World Series three times and playing second fiddle to nobody except the Yankees. But before Walter Johnson arrived in 1907 (and for a few years afterward), the Senators were truly awful. In 1901, the American League's inaugural season, the Senators were respectable, finishing sixth with a 61-72 record, and they were sixth again in 1902. But things got bad in 1903 (43-94, .314) and went to worse in 1904 (38-113, .252). What followed was a string of seventh- and eighth-place finishes that didn't end until 1912 when the Nats zoomed all the way to second place.
Philadelphia Phillies, 1938-1942
Record: 225-534 (.296)
It took a World War to get the Phillies out of last place. In 1943, with American troops in action in the Pacific, over Europe, and in North Africa, the Phillies vaulted from eighth place -- which they'd occupied at the conclusion of each season since 1938 -- all the way up to seventh ... and then they fell back to eighth in 1944 and '45. This was a lousy club with shaky ownership that was forever selling its best players, just to stay in business.
New York Mets, 1962-1965
Record: 190-452 (.300)
Ask 100 baseball fans to name the worst team, and a good number of them will come up with these Mets. And for good reason, as the '62 Mets in particular have been mythologized by a dozen books and a few dozen Marv Throneberry jokes. And yes, they really were that bad, going 40-120 in their first season, 51-111 in their second, 53-109 in their third, and 50-112 in their fourth. The Mets did escape the basement in 1966 (thanks to the Cubs), and just three seasons later they won the World Series.
Philadelphia Athletics, 1915-1921
Record: 323-710 (.313)
Remember when the Florida Marlins went from winning the World Series to losing 108 games in the short space of 12 months? Well, if you can imagine multiplying those results at both ends by a significant factor, then you've got these Philadelphia Athletics figured out. From 1910 through 1914, the A's won four American League pennants and three World Series. And then beginning in 1915, they finished last seven straight times.
What happened? Nobody's ever explained that to my satisfaction, but essentially what happened is that A's manager Connie Mack, who also co-owned the franchise, was either unable or unwilling to pay good ballplayers the going rate. And so the next seven seasons was something like an extended tryout camp, and the results showed up in the standings.
Cleveland Spiders, 1899
Record: 20-134 (.150)
It's very difficult to express just how hopeless were the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Jim Hughey, their best pitcher, won four games and lost 30. There were 12 teams in the National League that season, and the Spiders finished 35 games out of 11th place. In their last 41 games, the Spiders went 1-40.
It should be said that the Spiders had a pretty good excuse. Their owner, Frank De Haas Robison, purchased the St. Louis franchise prior to the 1899 season. And then he did what any right-thinking owner of two baseball franchises would do: he put all of his good players on one team, and left the dregs to the other. After the season, the Spiders were put out of their misery when the National League contracted by four teams.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.